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China Urges End of 'Harassment' of Vessels in Red Sea


An explosion occurs following an attack, amid the U.S.-led strikes on Houthi targets, in Dhamar, Yemen, in this still image from a video released on Jan. 18, 2024.
An explosion occurs following an attack, amid the U.S.-led strikes on Houthi targets, in Dhamar, Yemen, in this still image from a video released on Jan. 18, 2024.

China called Friday for an end to the "harassment of civilian vessels" in the Red Sea following weeks of attacks by Houthi rebels on ships in and around the sea.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the attacks must stop "in order to maintain the smooth flow of global production and supply chains and the international trade order."

China reiterated that the tensions in the Red Sea are linked to the war between Israel and Hamas.

"The top priority is to quell the war in Gaza as soon as possible to prevent the conflict from further expanding or even getting out of control," Mao said.

Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran, have said they are carrying out the attacks in the Red Sea in solidarity with Palestinians amid Israel's war against Hamas militants in Gaza. The violence has led U.S. and British forces to carry out retaliatory strikes against Houthi bases in Yemen.

Chinese, Russian vessels promised safety

The Chinese call Friday comes a day after Chinese Ministry of Commerce spokesperson He Yadong issued a similar appeal, calling on "all relevant parties" to "ensure the safety of navigation in the Red Sea." He said during a news conference Thursday the Red Sea waters are important international trade channels, according to Chinese state-owned news agency Xinhua.

A senior Houthi official said Friday that Russian and Chinese vessels would have safe passage through the Red Sea.

Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi political leadership, said in an interview with the Russian outlet Izvestia that the shipping lanes around Yemen are safe to ships from China and Russia as long as vessels are not connected with Israel, Agence France-Presse reported, citing Izvestia.

China is the world's largest trading country and a major trading partner of more than 140 countries and regions. For many years, it has been the largest customer of the Suez Canal in Egypt, which connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea and is the shortest maritime route between Asia and Europe.

According to data from the American Enterprise Institute, China's state-owned companies have invested almost $4 billion in Egyptian energy and logistics projects since 2007.

In the months leading up to Hamas' October 7 terror attack on Israel, firms from China and Hong Kong pledged at least $20 billion for various projects along Egypt's arterial waterway, according to Reuters.

China relies on the Red Sea for transporting its crude oil imports from Iran and other countries in the Middle East, as well as its trade with the European Union.

Oil imports from the Middle East are key to China's economic lifeline. Official data shows that in 2022, China's crude oil imports from the Middle East accounted for approximately 53.5% of total imports. Among China's top five sources of crude oil imports, the Middle East accounts for four.

So far, attacks on shipping in the Red Sea have had almost no impact on the price of oil. Last week, international oil prices increased only by about 4%.

Ahmed Aboudouh, a nonresident fellow with the Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council, told VOA in a phone interview, "At this point, we cannot see a massive harm to its commercial interests," adding that the conflict is small and isolated, not a regional configuration.

"We might see this happening in the form of some extra charges or some extra insurance premium, some extra disruption to supply chains, but all in all, the damage is not huge," he said.

The Houthis have launched attacks on ships with no apparent connection with Israel, resulting in some shipping firms avoiding the shipping lanes where the Houthis have launched attacks.

As China has a naval base in Djibouti, at the mouth of the Red Sea, Julian McBride, founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative, an anthropological NGO, told VOA in a phone interview, "China could potentially do — especially now that China wants to rapidly expand their navy — they could escort a lot of ships from neutral countries that directly have economic ties to China without being potentially caught in the same operation as the United States."

Some information in this report came from Agence France-Presse.

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